“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

– S.K.

In a sense, my familiarity with the life and work of Soren Aabye Kierkegaard began with a reflection on the end of his life: his (supposed) last words.

I was sitting on the balcony of a condominium my parents had rented in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. One of my closest friends had joined us for the trip; he was inside watching TV, I was listening to my favorite album, Bob Dylan’s Infidels, and watching the moon shine down pale blue over the sea. “Sweetheart Like You,” my favorite song, was probably playing. It was 2003, ten years ago this summer; I had just finished my freshman year of high school.

The door slid open and the cold conditioned air blew the humidity off of my skin. My friend asked me to come inside, there was something I had to see. The music was a ritual, though, so I told him to wait. A few minutes later I walked back inside to see what the big deal was. On the TV, I saw something mesmerizing. I later found out that the film was called Waking Life. Animated in a unique, trippy rotoscope-style, the film featured a nameless dreamer wandering from dream to dream, having in-depth philosophical conversations with a seemingly endless stream of interesting people. At times, the dreamer himself would simply fade out of the movie from scene to scene, with only the dream characters themselves conversing.

Most conversations in the movie lasted several minutes. As I watched, though, one scene stuck out to me for its brevity. It was composed of a single line spoken to the dreamer by a bearded man who passes him on a sidewalk at night: “Kierkegaard’s last words were sweep me up.”

To this day I can’t explain why, exactly, that line captured my attention so much. Yet somehow as soon as I heard it I was struck by the name “Kierkegaard.” I felt an instant curiosity, a draw to learn more about the man, despite knowing nothing about him at all (aside from his last words, though I later learned that the line in the movie may have been misleading regarding that point).

The movie ended, the vacation went on, I went back to listening to Bob Dylan, and before long I was back home in Ohio again. Then, about two or three weeks later, I was shopping at a Borders bookstore in West Virginia when I happened to glance around the philosophy section. Browsing idly, suddenly a particular title caught my eye: Works of Love. As I checked the name of the author, suddenly I was struck with the sense that this was a meaningful coincidence. I bought my first Kierkegaard book that day.

Yet another few weeks passed, and I was sitting around bored at a Fourth of July barbecue. It was held by a friend of my mother’s, and I didn’t have anything to do or anyone to talk to. I had my copy of Works of Love, though. The inside of the house was mostly quiet, so I slipped away from the backyard festivities and into the sitting room. The house, built on the banks of the Ohio River, was something of a historical landmark; it had been an inn throughout the 1700s and 1800s and likely played host to some noteworthy historical figures. The huge sitting room transported me back a century, and what better place to start reading the work of a man born in 1813?

The book proper begins with a Foreward and a Prayer. The Foreward starts out saying that the book, comprised of “Christian reflections,” will be “understood slowly, but then also easily.” I’ve always found that to be a very accurate prediction in my case. I’ve never been a very fast learner. Science and math fly right over my head most of the time. I’m not particularly adept at many practical skills. Yet beginning with my reading of Works of Love, I found a certain knack for philosophy. I may never have done well with the numerical abstractions of math classes, but in study hall, I learned to love logic, and working my way through the world of abstract ideas found in philosophy. Yet Kierkegaard’s aim was never to be purely abstract, and that’s a big part of why I came to love his writings. The Foreward explains that because the book is a series of “Christian reflections,” it is not about love but the works of love, and this is because love is inexhaustible, everywhere, and yet “essentially indescribable in its smallest act.” Kierkegaard’s writings, Works of Love being a prime example, are often focused on the importance of individual responsibility and experience, the importance of faith and belief expressed through deeds rather than words, and, ironically, the inexpressibility of the very subjects he writes about.

Kierkegaard wrote often (including in the Foreward to Works of Love) that he was writing specifically for That Individual. This idea has had a profound effect on the way I view my own writing practice. I always felt so moved by Kierkegaard’s words, yet his books were dense and dealt with the subtlest of things, matters of faith, thought, and action which all-too-often get dumbed down and over-simplified in everyday speech. It was difficult to share my enthusiasm for Kierkegaard with anyone else, as it isn’t exactly easy to discuss him in the small-talk that comes up day-to-day. You probably couldn’t do justice to a single book by Kierkegaard in a conversation lasting an entire week.

It occurred to me early on that I might never be able to share my joy over reading his books with anyone else. It also occurred to me that maybe this was okay; maybe this was the whole point! Kierkegaard often used a word translated into English as “edifying,” a building-up of a person’s best self, of virtue. I always felt edified reading Kierkegaard, and perhaps, I thought, that was exactly enough: to be an individual, to be myself, someone who happens to be energized by Kierkegaard’s work, and to spread the joy and the insight I found in his work to others in my own way, rather than trying to regurgitate Kierkegaard’s words alone. (Though I did pick up his habit of writing unreasonably long sentences.)

It may very well be the case that no other idea influenced me as much as this: that I must write not for a “general audience” or a “target demographic,” but “That Individual,” that one person in the world who, for whatever reason, would benefit from reading what I was writing. It’s not a plan for success; it isn’t a plan to become famous or popular or wealthy. It might be wishful thinking of blind faith. Yet it’s always motivated me more than any of those things. Even now, all these years later, I can’t write if I focus on more than one reader. In my mind, there is always only one; sometimes I write for someone specific that I know. Other times (such as right now), however, I write only hoping that someone, somewhere out there will read what I write and feel inspired and edified. Perhaps that someone is on the other side of the world, perhaps they won’t be alive until long after I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, just as I didn’t discover Kierkegaard until he’d been dead for 190 years. The details don’t matter, as long as I have the hope that somehow, my words will be read by the one person who really needs them.

Soren Kierkegaard, like many great artists, is a paradoxical figure. A large part of his work was written under various pseudonyms, personas with conflicting views and arguments; seemingly this was done as a kind of reductio ad absurdum tactic to point out the logical conclusions of various ways of thinking. Still many of his writings, such as his “Edifying Discourses,” were as straightforward as any other Sunday sermon and as direct and personal as a private letter from a friend.

As I finish writing this, Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman” is playing on my turntable; the title character is an enigmatic figure, not unlike Kierkegaard, a man of many faces. This is the music I listened to ten years ago when Kierkegaard’s books came into my life. I may not have learned much in my classes, but those study hall times spent reading Either/Or, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, The Sickness Unto Death and others were very educational, and the lessons I learned have stayed with me. On Soren’s 200th birthday, and the upcoming 10th anniversary of my first reading of Works of Love, I’m revisiting all these old books and songs from my early adolescence and musing on the way some things have come full circle.

I don’t remember all the details of the books I read back then; I may have, given their subtlety, misinterpreted or misremembered many of them. Some things, though, remain, not easily forgotten. I plan to read all of Kierkegaard’s books some day; I collected the entire set of the Princeton English translations over the last few years. Maybe then I can write a full commentary on Kierkegaard’s literary output, if I feel the need.

Many interpretations of Kierkegaard’s life and works have been written over the years, though. Commentaries abound. I’m afraid I’m under-qualified to offer any such academic insight now. All I can do is share my memories of the lessons I learned about the value of individual effort, individual passion and individual responsibility. Yet what I ultimately took away from Kierkegaard, looking back, isn’t the kind of “rugged” individualism you hear about more often. In the end, what matters is neither the pure independence of individualism nor the “untruth” of the mob-mentality of crowds, but rather the ability to connect to individuals as an individual, and the bonds we form between one another.

Kierkegaard was one of the first people I can think of who came from a Christian background, who described his writings, such as Works of Love, as “Christian reflections,” and yet he did not call himself a Christian. He was at odds with the state-church of Denmark, with the idea that being a Christian was a default state, a pretty social nicety, rather than a path to be followed with passion, and perhaps full of hardship to be endured. He made a distinction between Christianity, what he believed to be the truth that was the object of his faith, and Christendom, the all-too-worldly religion.

What I learned from this is just how important it is to be utterly honest with one’s self. The pursuit of Truth with a capital T, whatever you ultimately conclude it is, requires honesty of self first. All too easily, things can become homogenized and watered-down amongst the crowd, or buried under the illusions of individual ego. Kierkegaard’s take on labels was “when you label me, you negate me,” and these are words I’ve come to live by. In his life, the title “Christian” was something bestowed by God alone. Spoken in polite society, such a thing loses meaning.

Even if you have no relation to Christianity, I think that Kierkegaard has much of value for anyone who appreciates the pursuit of truth. Indeed, perhaps this is why his work was so popular with atheist existentialist philosophers such as Sartre and Camus, with Jewish author Franz Kafka, with Japanese philosophers, and many Catholic theologians, among others. This may even be why Kierkegaard spared a few kind words for contemporary atheist philosophers, for their unrestrained passion and honesty, even the pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. The value of the honest pursuit of truth is something that I think those of nearly all religions and philosophies can agree on, and even if one doesn’t share Kierkegaard’s faith, I think there’s much to be admired about his commitment to it, and to exploring and questioning every aspect of it.

I don’t think of Soren Kierkegaard as any kind of saint; I’m certain he’d be the first to agree that he was nothing of the sort. I do think of him, however, as a kindred spirit, as a friend from beyond time. When I read his words I’m transported back to the same spirit of wonder and hope that I felt back in my youth, and I can share a sense of the faith he had.

So thank you, Soren, for sharing your books, your thoughts, your soul with the world.

Happy 200th birthday.

“If anyone thinks he is a Christian and yet is indifferent toward being that, he is not one at all. When Christ says (Matthew 10:17), “Beware of people,” I wonder if by this is not also meant: Beware of being tricked out of the highest by people, by continual comparison, by habit and by externals.”

“Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?”

“Spiritual love, on the other hand, takes away from myself all natural determinants and all self-love. Therefore love for my neighbor cannot make me one with the neighbor in a united self. Love to one’s neighbor is love between two individual beings, each eternally qualified as spirit.”

Works of Love, Translated by Howard and Edna Hong